Culture Calling, 6th November 2018

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Ballet Black UK tour
Review by Rosa Johnston-Flint

The pioneering dance company performs a double bill of bold and inventive choreography in its own inimitable style. Catch them at venues across England throughout November.

Ballet Black is a dance company with a difference. For starters, they have recently collaborated on a new brown satin ballet shoe, which – unbelievably – wasn’t available for dancers of colour until now. And aside from their cultural impact as an award-winning, neo-classical ballet company made up of international dancers of black and Asian descent, their performances are completely mesmerising.

The tour features a double bill of two contrasting pieces, which allow the dancers to really flex their muscles and steer their performances through drama and comedy.

The first half consists of The Suit, a Barbican co-commission by choreographer Cathy Marston, renowned for her expressive and beautifully crafted work.

This eerie mini-melodrama was inspired by Can Themba’s South African fable of the same name, and it tells the story of a man and a woman’s relationship that becomes haunted by the woman’s infidelity. The haunting centres on a suit left in haste by her scarpering lover, which becomes a metaphorical spectre that floats around the stage, passed between dancers on a coat hanger, like an insidious Invisible Man forcing his way into the couple’s private sphere.

When the couple head out to socialise after the affair has been discovered, the female character Matilda carries the suit over her shoulder so it hangs down her back. It is her burden, sitting on its own chair between Matilda and her husband Philemon. Until this point, dancer Sayaka Ichikawa has portrayed Matilda with an effortless lightness and delicacy that is emphatically crushed, slumped under the fabric husk of the ‘other man’.

The dancers bring a sparse stage to life with vivid physical descriptions, filling in for props and sketching details of the couple’s daily routine to create a rich sense of location. Movements ripple out into the ensemble, amplifying their effect and reinforcing this idea of actions having consequences.

The second half is a re-staging of Arthur Pita’s A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream, a playful piece of dance-theatre which earned the Portuguese choreographer various Award nominations after its premiere in 2014.

An eclectic soundtrack spanning George Friederic Handel and Barbra Streisand, with percussive input from the cast’s claps, slaps and sighs, sets the tone for a mischievous hijacking of Shakespeare’s much-loved comedy. This rendition is infused with a spritely spark of imagination that would make Puck proud.

We open to a poker-faced ballet proper, replete with tutus and mock-serious pirouetting and head tilting. The scene is rudely disrupted by the arrival of Puck, a punky drag-king boy scout with a pocket full of magical substances who dashes onto the stage with arms wide, much like Rik Mayall in the credits of (appropriately) the TV series ‘Bottom’.

Puck puts the fairy royals and unsuspecting Athenians under a spell, and chaos inevitably ensues. Everyone loves Helena, who then falls for Hermia, and our heroes tumble into some delightfully re-jigged romantic pairings that blossom into duets galore. The dance between Oberon and Lysander, played by José Alves and Ebony Thomas respectively, is particularly impressive – a powerful sweep of the stage that remains supple and romantic. This deviation from the Shakespeare text is certainly a welcome one.

The costume brilliantly compliments the action, with soft, lighter-than-air fabric giving a whimsical sense of magic, whilst simultaneously fuelling the comedy, as Titania’s dress, slipped over her stiff tutu, bobs like a jellyfish in harmony with every prim, huffy step.

The lighting is also simple but brilliant – for the dance sequence between Titania and Bottom the stage plunges to an ultra blue, creating an other-worldly atmosphere that feels as big as a dream sequence from La La Land.

Titania is played by the impossibly graceful Cira Robinson, and she somehow brings a dignity to this dance with a donkey (Bottom), despite having a consistent flair for the ridiculous throughout the piece.

This revised version of Midsummer madness is so liberated and fun you can’t help but feel sorry when order is restored and everything goes back to ‘normal’.